Under Pope Francis and President Xi, hopes rise for a thaw in ties

By Jiang Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2016-2-25 20:43:01

After decades of frozen ties, China and the Vatican seem to be witnessing a slow but significant change in relations. While divergences remain, including on the issue of who gets to appoint bishops, experts and religious leaders have seen progress in the overall tone of dialogue.


American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Photo: Li Hao/GT


Over 8,000 kilometers away from each other, the Vatican City seems incompatible in many ways with Beijing, the hearts of the Catholic faith and the biggest Communist nation, the country with the smallest population in the world and the country with the largest.

Since 1951, the two sides have lacked official diplomatic connections. As the two countries welcomed new leaders in recent years, some have hoped for a thawing in ties.

These hopes have gained momentum since October 2015, when the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said that China and the Holy See were engaged in a "positive" dialogue. Cardinal Parolin also confirmed that a papal delegation would visit Beijing, adding that they would discuss normalization of relations.

Less than four months later, a Chinese delegation visited the Holy See in late January.

Early in February, American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick traveled to China - a trip in which the cardinal said he would visit some "old friends." While the cardinal insisted in an exclusive interview with the Global Times that he was not visiting in his "official capacity," his trip has shown that ties are growing more comfortable.

Cardinal McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, DC, is the first cardinal from a Western country to visit the Chinese mainland since Sino-Vatican ties turned sour, South China Morning Post reported. He has reportedly visited China eight times since the 1990s.

His previous visits included meetings with Wang Zuo'an, head of the State Administration for Religious Affairs and late bishop Fu Tieshan, former president of Bishop Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC), an organization not recognized by the Holy See.

Visiting archbishops may carry messages from the Vatican as the pontiff's envoys, according to Liu Guopeng, an associate research fellow at the Institute of World Religion Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The two sides can also talk via a third country such as Italy or through individual and delegation exchanges, even though there is no Chinese permanent delegate to the Vatican, Liu said.

Vietnamese or Chinese model

Beijing and the Holy See severed ties in 1951, after the imprisonment of then Bishop of Shanghai, Cardinal Ignatius Pin-Mei Kung and the expulsion of Archbishop Antonio Riberi due to their opposition to the Chinese government's policy to end the pope's authority over the Catholic Church in China.

While both sides have put effort into restoring diplomatic ties in recent years, attempts took a hit in 2010 when several bishops were consecrated by the State-endorsed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) and BCCCC without approval from the Holy See.

Following the ceremony, the Vatican issued a strongly worded statement, expressing its "deep regret" and accusing the CCPA of constituting a "painful wound upon ecclesial communion and a grave violation of Catholic discipline."

The CCPA and the BCCC are the only two State-endorsed Catholic organizations and are in charge of running all of China's Catholic churches, including appointing bishops.

The Vatican's diplomatic relations with Taiwan may be of less importance to the church compared to the pope's right to appoint bishops, which the Catholic Church considers key to the Catholic faith and organization. Some experts have speculated that the Vatican may choose to give up its official ties with Taiwan, should Beijing and the Holy See reach an agreement on the restoration of official relations, which Cardinal McCarrick said would be "always on the table."

"In principle there are no difficulties," noted Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at the Center of European Studies at the Renmin University of China, as the Chinese government, which is officially atheist, has no claim on the religious authority of the Catholic Church and the Vatican has no claim on the civil authority of the Chinese government.

Of the 115 bishops in China 110 are both recognized by the Roman Catholic Church and the Chinese government, according to Liu. Five are only recognized by Chinese authorities.

In August 2015, coadjutor bishop Zhang Yinlin - designated to assist bishop Zhang Huaixin of the Anyang diocese - was consecrated at a Catholic church in Anyang, Central China's Henan Province, the first bishop recognized by both Beijing and the Holy See since 2012.

Chinese experts have been expecting a "Chinese model" in bishop appointment as opposed to the so-called "Vietnamese model" - a model in which a list of candidates is drawn up by both the Vatican and Vietnam together for the Vatican to chooses from, with the new bishop finally being approved by the pope once the Vietnamese government agrees on the selection.

However, such a model was not accepted by China when it was tested in the country in 2005, as the Chinese authorities want total control over choosing candidates, experts said, adding that a "Chinese model" is likely to see the Holy See approve potential bishops nominated by the Chinese authorities alone.

They speculated that the discussions on this issue may be ongoing, with both parties trying to seek a consensus on the exact details, such as the number of candidates and if there should be a set time between candidates being submitted to the Vatican and their final approval.

"We cannot submit endless candidate lists to the Vatican if the pontiff keeps saying no. We may have to appoint bishops unapproved by the pontiff after a set number of rounds of negotiations. Such bishops may not be legitimate under the Church doctrine, but they can still give church services to Chinese Catholics," said an expert on Catholicism studies on condition of anonymity.

"After years of contact, the two sides are aware of each other's position. For China, we want a bishop, who is first of all Chinese and who is dedicated to church services. We also want to take full charge of our [religious] affairs by ourselves," the expert added.

Meanwhile, in the eyes of Cardinal McCarrick, the church has to be faithful to its teachings, faithful to it hierarchy, which demands a role for the pope. Such a call also echoed Pope Benedict XVI, who in a pastoral letter to the Chinese faithful in 2007 argued that the CCPA goes against church doctrine.

"You can't say we're going to be Catholic in every way but we don't want Pope Francis involved in this. It's like saying to a family, we want you to be organized very well and do all kinds of good things, but your dad can't have anything to say … If the Patriotic Church says we don't want anything to do with our father, I'd have a problem. Like I've said before, you can't have a good family without a father. I'm hoping the patriotic church does not say that," the cardinal explained.

Soft superpower

In his first-ever interview on China with Hong Kong-based Asia Times (AT), Pope Francis did not talk about bilateral ties with China, but the pontiff conveyed his best wishes and greetings to President Xi Jinping and to all the Chinese people, while expressing his hope that "they never lose their historical awareness of being a great people, with a great history of wisdom, and that they have much to offer to the world."

"This Pope loves China. He has said this on many occasions. He really seems to be enthusiastic about China and that's wonderful. I would hope that it [Pope Francis visiting China] would be possible. I think China would be very open to it. I think the present government of China would be open to it. I think President Xi would be open to having Holy Father come," said Cardinal McCarrick.

The Pope sees a bigger role for the Vatican to help communication between China and the rest of the world, which are scared of each other, according to Sisci, who as the greater China correspondent of AT, conducted the interview.

Sisci, a Vatican affairs expert, told the Global Times that the "pragmatic and flexible" Chinese government is very focused on the importance of soft power and the Vatican is one of the largest "soft powers" of the world. "The Chinese would not and should not miss the occasion of meeting the pope, leader of this soft superpower, especially since it can help China dispel the many fears there are in the world about its rise," he said.

While there was no sense of urgency about solving or improving relations with the Vatican from the Chinese side, the authorities may have realized the role the pope could play in helping China and the world communicate during Xi's visit to the US last year when Pope Francis was treated like a rock star, according to Sisci.

"My sense is that they [the Chinese authorities] are realizing the importance but they don't know how. The first reaction is we have to normalize ties, but the interview has changed the game," he said.

He explained that while the pope only decided to visit the US after Obama's trip to the Vatican in 2014, the pope is already willing to visit China. However, he added that as the pope is eager to visit China, Beijing should seize this opportunity to extend an invitation to him.

Under the two leaders

As an atheist party, the Communist Party of China (CPC) may still remember the time when the Holy See excommunicated Communists from the Roman Catholic Church and declared Communism at odds with the faith.

Cardinal McCarrick also pointed out that there was hostility toward all religions in China in the time of Chairman Mao.

"But that's gone now. The Maoist attitude toward religions has changed. Because of that, there may be more changes in the future to allow China to develop their own religious lives in a good and healthy way," said the cardinal.

Such a change may partly be a result of the reform and opening-up policy, but also consistent endeavors from the Church to reassure the CPC government that faithful Catholics are not subversive. 

The cardinal recalled a meeting some 20 years ago with the then president Jiang Zemin when he "kept saying" that China should never be afraid of "any religious group that is legitimate and substantial."

The cardinal also hoped that Xi Jinping may be willing to start "a great new moment in history" with the Vatican.

Pope Francis is the first pope to disclose that he received a reply from a Chinese leader to whom he wrote letters, reported the Italian Corriere Della Sera daily. The Pope said he exchanged letters with Xi in March 2013.

The pontiff has since sent two telegrams to the Chinese people, and for the first time, a pope was granted use of China's airspace during Pope Francis's visit to South Korea in 2014.

Cardinal McCarrick also stressed how the similarities between the two leaders can be "a special gift for the world."

"A lot of things that China worries about, [Pope Francis] worries about, about the care of poor, older people, children, our civilization and especially the ecology. I see a lot of things happening that would really open many doors because President Xi and his government is concerned about things that Pope Francis concerned about," the cardinal said.

Newspaper headline: From Rome to Beijing

Posted in: In-Depth

blog comments powered by Disqus